TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Put me in, coach! How practice plus coaching helps aspiring teachers win

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Every coach knows that practice drives improvement. It doesn't matter if they're coaching educators in the classroom, little leaguers at the park, or professionals at the biggest stadium in town; great coaching is critical for success. In teacher preparation, the amount and type of practice that aspiring teachers have access to varies widely, even though research suggests a strong clinical practice experience can make a first-year teacher as effective as one in their second or third year in the classroom. Emerging research on targeted coaching sessions with simulated teaching experiences may offer some guidance to prep programs seeking to provide more practice opportunities.

New research from Julie Cohen, Vivian C. Wong, Anandita Krishnamachari, and Steffen Erickson of the University of Virginia provides evidence for using practice opportunities coupled with targeted coaching to help aspiring teachers improve specific skills. Teachers improve rapidly in their first years in the classroom; the authors seek to identify strategies that can move more of this growth to their pre-service training.

Traditional teacher preparation has long involved a combination of coursework and student teaching, yet too often, teacher candidates experience theory and practice in isolation. The authors point out that there is a range of experiences between reading about teaching and engaging in the "full scrimmage" of student teaching that could be thought of as "drills." The authors found large and statistically significant effects of simulated teaching drills paired with coaching for candidates enrolled in teacher preparation programs. Candidates were evaluated on simulated teaching drills of two skills (text-focused instruction or establishing classroom norms). Those who received coaching following the drill showed increased use of these skills on an observation rubric in subsequent teaching simulations. Effects were not statistically significant for undergraduate students not enrolled in preparation programs (i.e., students who expressed interest in teaching, but lacked any formal teacher training), which suggests that teaching skills increased when the drills and coaching were reinforced by coursework.

In the study, two groups of university students (most, but not all of whom were enrolled in teacher prep) engaged in a simulated teaching experience, in which they taught a virtual classroom of student avatars controlled by a trained actor. Following this teaching drill, the control group engaged in a self-reflection protocol about perceived strengths and weaknesses and goals for a subsequent simulated teaching drill. Candidates in the treatment group received a directive coaching session focused on a specific skill.

The directive coaching session consisted of four steps:
  1. The coach observed the candidate's simulated teaching drill and diagnosed the instructional needs related to a specific skill.
  2. The coach assessed the candidate's perception of their own performance before identifying strengths and improvement targets.
  3. The coach described the features of high-quality enactment of the targeted skill and specific strategies for the candidate to use in subsequent experiences.
  4. The coach engaged in a role-play with the candidate, providing opportunities for further practice.
The authors tested a variety of factors and found that this coaching model remained effective across several. First, the authors were able to replicate coaching effects with different groups of students over multiple years. Second, they found comparable coaching effects when the practice drills targeted an instructional skill (text-focused instruction) and a classroom environment skill (establishing classroom norms). Lastly, the authors examined the mode of delivery, in-person or via Zoom, and found comparable coaching effects. Notably, the large coaching effects were possible even though the coach and teacher candidate did not have a prior long-standing relationship.

The authors caution that this study is limited to establishing a causal relationship between directive coaching and skill improvement in simulated environments. Future research will set out to connect this type of coaching and skill improvement when teaching actual students. That said, practice drills coupled with directive coaching deployed by teacher preparation programs is a promising strategy for building teacher candidates' skills, leading to teachers who are better prepared to meet the needs of their students on day one.